PCBs: The Next Building Liability Wave?


First, lead paint; then, asbestos. Next: PCBs?

The legacy of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once common in a wide variety of building materials, may be the next public health hazard confronting the building industry, according to a new white paper by the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

PCBs in the Built Environment details the latest research on the health effects of PCBs; evaluates exposure mechanisms and hazards; reviews relevant legislation and regulations; provides a risk assessment; and discusses remediation methods—all items that have gotten too little public attention, the organization says.

PCBs are manmade chemical compounds manufactured in the United States from the late 1920s to 1979, when they were banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Until then, the compounds were used in many building materials, particularly caulk, grout, expansion joint material and paint. In paint and coatings, PCBs were used in additives as plasticizers and to enhance chemical resistance, durability and elasticity.

All of these materials were widely used in commercial and public buildings for generations.

Now, as eventually happened with lead, asbestos, some flame retardants and other materials, research has shown the public health repercussions of those long-ago decisions—and the probable need, according to AIHA, for a future abatement strategy.

PCB Dangers

"Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have published extensive material evaluating human health impacts from exposure to PCBs," AIHA reports.

PCBs in building materials PCBs in buildings

Caulk containing PCBs was used in concrete expansion joints, and window and door joints from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The public-health risks include developmental effects in children, reproductive effects, and long-term risks for cancer development. Unlike lead and asbestos, however, PCB's risks are still typically unknown to today's building owners and occupants.

That is likely to change before long.
AIHA's 54-page report cites "growing evidence" that PCB exposures "in both vapor and particulate matter form" emanate from PCB-containing products in the building environment.
Rotopeening concrete

Removal and remediation methods for PCB-containing materials include roto-peening concrete.

In addition to exposure from direct contact with these materials, additional exposure may come from secondary sources, such as deterioration of materials. Materials can also become contaminated by absorption from direct contact with PCB sources or through adsorption of PCBs in the air that have been emitted by primary sources, such as caulk or light ballasts, according to AIHA.

The precise levels and risks of PCB exposure from building materials are not clear, however. AIHA's paper is an attempt to begin to fill that gap.
The report:
  • Provides an overview of currently available information about PCBs in construction materials;
  • Evaluates the exposure potential for building occupants and maintenance and construction personnel;
  • Summarizes current research into the health impacts of PCBs; and
  • Identifies areas for future research and focus.

Why Now?

Although the hazards of PCBs have been long known, two major legislative and legal efforts in the U.S. are now moving the issue to the front burner, according to AIHA.
First, TSCA, which implemented restrictions and prohibitions regarding the manufacture, use and disposal of PCBs in the U.S., may be overhauled by a bill now working its way through Congress.
AIHA notes that TSCA does not require identification of PCB-containing materials unless renovation, demolition or other activities generate PCB wastes.
PCBs in materials

As with other building materials, demolition of structures with PCB-containing materials can expose workers to the hazardous materials. Far more information on such exposures is needed, AIHA reports.

The other issue involves legal action filed by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) after a concerned parent read a 2004 publication on PCB investigations in Boston, MA, schools and other buildings and investigated his own child’s school.
Currently, according to AIHA, the EPA and the City of New York are working together under a Consent Agreement "to study and establish a policy for management of PCBs."
Data Gaps

The report identifies several "potentially significant data gaps." It notes, for example:

  • A lack of exposure assessment data for building occupants, maintenance personnel and construction workers;

  • A lack of exposure profiles by building types and by types of occupants;

  • Unrecognized or mischaracterized PCB exposures in "many environments" because of few requirements that exposure sources be identified;

  • Inadequate respiratory protection for workers exposed to PCBs in vapor phase; and

  • Continued production of pigments containing PCBs. (The 1979 ban on commercial PCB production contained an exemption for PCBs that unintentionally produced as a result of manufacturing processes.)

Founded in 1939, AIHA is an association of occupational and environmental health and safety professionals, with 10,000 members working in the private and public sectors.


Tagged categories: Architectural coatings; Asbestos; Building materials; Building owners; Caulking; Concrete; Expansion joints; Health and safety; Lead; Maintenance + Renovation; Maintenance programs; Masonry

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